During the Xmas break, I read a wonderful book that I should have discovered earlier – No Expenses Spared, by Winnett and Rayner (2009). The authors are two of the journalists at the Daily Telegraph who uncovered the MPs’ expenses scandal, and they explain how the stories unfolded. It makes for fascinating reading, but it leaves some questions unanswered. It was written before the events that led up to the Leveson Inquiry, and in the climate of today I expect there might have been more questions at the start of the expenses investigation about the legality of the way the details of the MPs’ expenses were obtained, and exactly what it was that motivated so many MPs either to downright cheat, or at least exploit to the full the legitimate allowances in ways that did not appeal to the public. Coincidentally today it was reported that many MPs feel that they should be paid higher salaries. This brought predictable boos and groans from the Any Questions audience on Radio 4 this evening, but the sensible point was made by panellist Douglas Murray that if the salary were higher, one could do away with the expenses allowances altogether. For of course in some cases MPs behaved as they did because they believed that maximising expenses was a way of fairly increasing their salaries. As a result, Lords no longer have expenses, but only a flat rate. (Bloggers, please do not start going on about our costs, we know what you think.) Whatever the motives, the result of the expenses scandal was to damage trust in, and the reputation of all MPs, and to a lesser extent peers, and restoration is not yet in sight.
But now almost every section of the nation’s establishment in turn is facing allegations of untrustworthy behaviour and is being investigated, to the dismay of the public. First it was the bankers and the financial world, whose behaviour damaged the national and international economy. Then it was MPs and peers, followed by the journalists themselves (the phone hacking story and its aftermath); the Churches have come under suspicion in relation to child abuse and attitudes to women and gays; teachers are accused of helping students do their work to get higher grades, and universities of admitting foreign students who are not genuine. The BBC is mired in the Jimmy Savile crimes. The police are once again the object of examination after the plebgate incident and because of their links with politicians and journalists. Hospitals, it seems, cannot be trusted to take care of the elderly, show compassion to patients and not waste money; some sportsmen are caught taking drugs and behaving badly, and so on. This country, once renowned for its integrity and lack of corruption, now seems to have crisis of suspicion and mistrust.
One of the few professions to retain trust is the legal profession, in particular, the judiciary. I have every confidence that they deserve our trust. It is the judges to whom we turn to investigate the scandals mentioned above. The Bar Council recently protested, quite rightly, about the situation in India where lawyers refused to represent the 6 alleged rapists involved in the terrible recent assault on a young girl who died from her injuries. The barristers’ cab rank rule, which requires our advocates to take every case that comes along, without regard to its popularity, is an essential part of our rule of law.